First published on Phil Owens’s Fork Talk April 2014
Before even really speaking with her, it is obvious that pastry chef and MBE and MOGB (Meilleur Ouvrier de la Grande-Bretange)-awarded Claire Clark loves what she does. Her house, a beautiful restored and centuries-old barn house in the middle of the Hertfordshire countryside, is one of the first tell-tale signs. To echo the house’s history, it is filled with antique memorabilia – and most of it of food; portraits of French Fancies and cupcakes in the bathroom, tin signs in the living room advertising a long-forgotten ale, and on top of one of the house’s ancient beams, a simple but telling lettering: cake.
Speaking with her on her patio in the sunshine, she confirms what had already been sussed, ‘I have so much fun…I wake up in the morning and I’ve got 7 kilos of melted chocolate and I am so excited about what I’m going to make it into today.’ The first female and the first pastry chef to be awarded an MOGB, Claire is a big defender of her craft, and insists that pastry is the most creative job in catering, ‘I can take a bag of sugar and turn it into a horse. Can you do that with a lump of meat?’ She asks, playfully.
For someone whose desserts have paraded around the Ritz, The Wolsley, Claridges, Bluebird, California’s three-Michelin starred The French Laundry and many more, Claire is remarkably down to earth, humble and oh so much fun. Chatty, hospitable, with a wickedly contagious laugh – we could have whiled away the whole afternoon.
Though her character in a busy Michelin-starred kitchen must be quite different.
‘I trained in the 80s. When I first went in I was really timid – I just came from the countryside and I had no idea. I cried a lot in the beginning…but I remember someone saying you’ve got to get tough, if you really want to make it you’ve got to do it, and someone holds your hand and you become part of it.’
Back then, and still today, kitchens were male-dominated environments – if there were women working; they were in the pastry, although the pastry sections were always led by male chefs. ‘You do have to prove yourself if you are a female – you have to try harder and you have to work harder. I was always first in and last out – I guess people would call it creeping – you want to get the promotion so you are going to go the extra mile.’
Now Claire thinks there are as many males as there are females in pastry – thanks to cultural perceptions shifting due to shows like The Great British Bake Off. But the market for sweet stuff? It still remains with mostly women. ‘70% of all people that take afternoon tea are female,’ Claire states, matter-of-factly.
‘But, why?’ We ask, knowing that we are asking Claire to explain the borderline unexplainable. ‘I think its just how we are made up. Why historically do women make home, while man make fire?’
We ask Claire what she thinks it is that makes her and her desserts stand out, and she politely says age and experience, and the tremendous luck she had in having Swiss/German patissiers John Huber and Ernst Bachmann as mentors. Of course, these things are all true, but Claire is a true creative, and although trained old-school, she is an innovator, who embraces the demands of modern baking.
Claire is very involved with the ever-growing niche of “free-from” or simply health-conscious eaters, and has been working to develop cakes that are reduced-fat and gluten, wheat, dairy and sugar-free for her clients for some time. ‘We still want our cake, we want it to look fabulous and to be no different from any other cake, but we want it to be less calories, less fat, less sugar…it is not a craze, I think it is here to stay.’
Claire is also looking to create a space that is part retail-focused and part dining – but almost completely dedicated to patisserie. Recognising the modern-day diner’s love of approachable atmosphere and a more casual take on service, Claire wants to take the classic afternoon tea, with all of its popularity, but abandon all of the “rules”. ‘I love the tradition of afternoon tea, but does it have to be on a cake stand, does it have to be the same type of cake, does the room have to look like that? Let’s go modern, let’s go urban, let’s go chic, let’s go funky – let’s get handsome guys in tight black shirts taking your shopping off you.’
We watch as Claire finishes off an order of chocolate Easter eggs for a client – melting huge slabs of white chocolate and decorating with gold dust and multi-coloured sugar flowers – as she tells us about the dinner parties she occasional throws for her chef friends, with too many courses and puddings. She is the type of person who what she does and who she is blends into one, and it is delightful, and delicious, to be around.
Created by Phil Owens & Thrice Media for Bespoke Menu Design
I’ve always been rather taken with afternoon tea. The tradition, how historical it is, the concept of creating hundreds of small delicate pastries and cakes, all with handmade or hand-finished decorations – it’s “play school” for a Pastry Chef like me, a place of pure creativity.
So when the Royal Opera House asked me to craft their very first afternoon tea offering, alongside Company of Cooks, my answer was obvious.
The Royal Opera House is a true stalwart of Covent Garden, and the Tea’s setting, the Paul Hamlyn Hall, a place once described as a mini Crystal Palace – is extra special.
Famously depicted in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and then as the Covent Garden Market setting in My Fair Lady, the Paul Hamlyn Hall seems it was born for performance. A good thing, as the cakes we’ve created for Tea at the Royal Opera House are anything but timid!
With real whimsy but beautifully executed and retaining grown-up flavours, my favourite of the fancies must be the chocolate teacake – it reminds me of the ones ate growing up, just this time “poshed up”. With Oreo-cookie bases and soft gooey marshmallow, filled with a Grand-Marnier kumquat filling and then finished dramatically with lashings of dark bitter 72% chocolate to balance the sweetness of the marshmallow – it’s a divine indulgence that begs to be devoured.
And if you love how that sounds but don’t eat gluten or dairy, or are vegan or vegetarian, that’s fine too, as we’ve designed enough options to please everyone. I pride myself on making these “free-from” options as beautiful and delicious as all of the other cakes – it’s a challenge but very satisfying to get it right!
I feel privileged to be a part of Tea at the Royal Opera House, the very first of its kind in the historic building, and feel equally as lucky to have worked with such a spectacular team of Pastry Chefs in the Royal Opera House kitchen – headed up by the supremely talented Louise Rigden. Now, the only question remaining is what to eat first: the banoffee macaron, pistachio praline éclair, Royal Opera House Gateau…
All images courtesy of Lia Vittone